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Unearthing the Aztec past, the destruction of the Templo Mayor

Video transcript

[Music] we're standing in the middle of Mexico City in what was once the sacred precinct of the Aztecs and we're looking at the ruins of the temple my or their main temple when you are on site at the templo mayor today can be a bit disorienting because the temple itself is not complete anymore it was destroyed and buried by the Spaniards with the conquest and so what you see today are the remains of this temple and we've just walked up this ramp that has taken us through layer after layer of seven building campaigns these were undertaken by succeeding rulers the previous temple would be filled over with dirt and stone rubble and then encased in a finished stone structure a larger pyramid which would be then surfaced with stucco and brightly painted and then decorated with an enormous number of sculptural forms we get a good sense of how the templo mayor would have looked to the Spanish when they arrived here in 1519 the templo mayor was a twin temple devoted to the Aztecs two main deities Huitzilopochtli the God of War and a Sun God and the gods Lolich who was a rain and agricultural deity and so the templo mayor was part of this larger sacred precinct that included a variety of buildings including temples to other important deities like the feathered serpent deity Quetzalcoatl or - the Sun disc - not you so when Hernan Cortes the Spanish conquistador arrived here in 1519 he and many of the men with him were incredibly impressed with what they were seeing they were overwhelmed with the beauty of Tenochtitlan or the Aztec capital city one of the soldiers with Cortes wrote about his experiences he says this we saw so many cities and villages built in the water and other great towns on dry land and that straight and level causeway going towards Mexico we were amazed on account of the great towers and temples and buildings rising from the water and all built of masonry and some of our soldiers asked whether the things that we saw were not a dream so let's describe for just a moment what the Spanish must have seen when they first arrived they saw a huge double staircase that rose steeply up and then at the top a large platform with twin temples on the top in order to get to the temples you would have passed by on the right a stone altar and on the left a sculptural figure that showed an individual on his back with a bowl over his belly this is what's called the Czech mole and both this individual and the sacrificial stone that you would have passed were likely used during many of the ritual ceremonies that took place during the monthly festivals unfortunately today much of what was once the sacred precinct is underneath modern-day Mexico City underneath buildings that are still standing such as the Cathedral of the city of Mexico and the plaza mayor of the zocalo all of these would have been part of the sacred precinct or the area just immediately surrounding it we've gone inside to look at reconstructions of the templo mayor or the temple was intentionally destroyed it wasn't transformed the way that for instance a Catholic Church might be transformed into a Protestant Church this is the actual destruction of the most sacred temple in the most sacred part of the capital city of the Aztecs even though we have all these accounts written by Spaniards who were commenting how beautiful and amazing it was they still raised much of the city in particular the sacred precinct and what we do find then is the building on top of many of these structures using the stones that had been part of these Aztec buildings and the violence wasn't just perpetrated on the people and the buildings of Tenochtitlan but other kinds of symbols for instance sculptures were intentionally toppled or buried I do you have sculptures that are then recarved in two columns you have sculptures made by the Spaniards for Christian purposes that were clearly once Aztec sacred objects so objects like quashy Kali receptacles for blood or various implements for sacrifice where sometimes transformed into baptismal fonts and if we look at the Metropolitan Cathedral the main cathedral in the zocalo in Mexico City we know that some of the stones from the templo mayor were reused in its additional construction so this is a physical expression of the spiritual and political conquest this needs to be understood with in the broader context of the reconquest the Reconquista the reconquest in Spain is when we're talking about Spaniards who are trying to reconquer the Iberian Peninsula from Muslims who had taken over much of the peninsula in the 8th century and so the reconquest ends in 1492 shortly before their coming to the Americas and coming into contact with people like the Aztecs you can see for instance the Great Mosque of Cordoba with a Christian Church built into the center of the building as of this sign of both political and spiritual conquest but in that case they left the great majority of the mosque and simply built a church in the center here we have almost a complete destruction of the sacred precinct if you go to Mexico City today you can see ongoing excavations of parts of what had been the sacred precinct Mexico is very protective of its cultural heritage you have organizations like ena who are responsible for these excavations and the protection of these important sites and so say a building is going to be taken down and something new built on top of it or they're constructing subway lines ena has the responsibility to send in archaeologists to see if there is anything there that is part of this Mesoamerican cultural heritage and new things are being discovered regularly this awareness of the value of Mexico's cultural history goes back even to the colonial period where you have an increasing recognition of what was lost during the colonial period you have Spaniards born in the Americas known as Americanos or Carrillo leo's Creoles and as we're progressing throughout the colonial period they're becoming increasingly interested in the Mesoamerican past as a way to separate themselves from Spaniards on the Iberian Peninsula and then in the post-colonial period after Mexico wins independence we see this interest most visibly in the 1920s in the 1930s in the great mural paintings of artists like Diego Rivera so modern Mexico City is a complex layering of mob and pre-colonial history imagine what we'll find in the future [Music]